2014 Position Preview: Third base

Updated: February 20, 2014, 4:19 PM ET
By Mike Sheets | Special to ESPN.com

Some positions, such as outfield, are like casino buffets: They offer plenty of variety. Whether you're looking for power, speed, batting average or some combination of those statistics, there are plenty of options available to appease your appetite. Third base, on the other hand, is like being allowed to visit only the seafood and Asian cuisine stations. Sure, you're getting some quality fare, but your options are limited. So if you're looking for a player who provides, say, home runs and stolen bases, well, you might be out of luck.

Power is plentiful at third base. Speed? Not so much. Twenty-nine third basemen hit double-digit home runs in 2013. Just one stole double-digit bases (compared to seven in 2012). And if it feels like the star-studded cast at third base is missing a member or two this season, that's because Edwin Encarnacion and Hanley Ramirez have lost their third base eligibility, which definitely thins out the top of the third base pool a bit. So if you're dead set on getting a stud at the hot corner, you'll have to act a little earlier than you did last season.

You'll be in good shape if you nab one of the top five or six third basemen. If you choose to wait, you can still secure quality production. However, the further down the rankings you go, the more apparent the flaws become. Pedro Alvarez, for instance, has plenty of power, but he's a batting-average drain. And while Aramis Ramirez is a steady contributor when healthy, he's in his mid-30s and is coming off an injury-plagued 2013. Also consider that many owners frequently draw from third base to fill their corner-infield and utility spots, so the position has the potential to get shallow pretty quickly.

Cream of the Crop

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
MLB Photos/Getty ImagesMiguel Cabrera finished No. 1 on the Player Rater in 2013.

It's a one-man show at the top of the hot-corner rankings, and that man is Miguel Cabrera, who will be the No. 2 overall pick (behind Mike Trout) in many a draft this spring. The Tigers slugger has averaged a .339 batting average, 44 home runs and 138 RBIs over the past two seasons, and last season's numbers would have been even more gaudy had a sports-hernia injury not sidelined him for part of September. Miggy will move to first base this season with Prince Fielder now in Texas, so this likely will be his last season with third base eligibility. Not that it matters much. Cabrera is the elite of the elite, and he's at his peak right now.

Next-Best Thing

Adrian Beltre can't match Cabrera's production from a pure numbers standpoint, but he's just as consistent. Over his past three seasons with the Rangers, Beltre has never hit worse than .296/30/92 or finished lower than third on the Player Rater among third basemen. Some caution might be warranted this season; he turns 35 in April, and few players can sustain high-end production into their mid-30s. That said, Beltre is showing very few signs of slowing down. In 2013, he posted his highest walk rate since 2008, the highest line-drive rate (21.8 percent) of his career and a career-best 85.6 percent contact rate. In other words, there's no need for concern just yet.

A hamstring injury forced David Wright to miss most of August and September last year, but he was his normal, five-category-producing self before coming up lame. On top of batting over .300 each of the past two campaigns -- with 21 or more homers in each season he has played 150 or more games -- Wright was the only third baseman in baseball last season to steal double-digit bases (17). Not only that, but he has swiped double-digit bags in nine straight seasons. As arguably the only third baseman in baseball who has a realistic chance of hitting .300 with 20 homers and 20 steals in 2013, Wright can give owners a real advantage at the hot corner.

Evan Longoria stayed healthy in 2013 for the first time since 2010. That was our only concern about him heading into the '13 campaign. He also belted 32 homers (his most since 2009), drove in 88 runs (top five at the position) and scored 91 times (second behind Cabrera). Longo might not help much in the batting-average department, as last season's 23.4 percent strikeout rate was a career worst. However, fantasy owners care most about his power, and that's still very much intact. Longoria significantly boosted his fly ball rate last season, and his .230 isolated power mark was in the top three at the position and top 12 in the majors.

Where's the Ceiling?

[+] EnlargeMachado
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsManny Machado has shown superstar potential.

Manny Machado earned a top-10 spot on the Player Rater last season -- batting .283 with 14 homers, 51 doubles and 71 RBIs -- but it was his first-half production -- .310/.337/.470 with seven homers, 39 doubles and 45 RBIs -- that really intrigued fantasy owners. His second-half struggles (.240/.277/.370), however, went on to reveal that he was still a work in progress, and a season-ending knee injury in late September put his Opening Day status in question. It could be a few years before Machado's power fully comes around, which limits his upside for the time being, but this is definitely a guy to invest in long term. In terms of prospect status and long-term outlook, Machado has drawn comparisons to Trout and Bryce Harper. Baltimore's third baseman hasn't reached those heights just yet from a fantasy perspective, but he still has "future star" written all over him.

It's safe to say that Xander Bogaerts, who hit .297/.388/.447 with 15 dingers in 116 games between Double-A and Triple-A last season, won't reach his full potential for another few years. After all, the highly regarded prospect is just 21 years old and registered only 44 regular-season at-bats with the Red Sox in 2013. Nonetheless, there's still plenty to like about him this season. He's currently in line to be Boston's starting shortstop -- he'll be eligible only at third base to start the season -- and his advanced plate discipline and solid power potential should translate well in his first full season in the majors. Don't go overboard on draft day, as he'll surely encounter some ups and downs, but this is an intriguing skill set that could push Bogaerts' value well beyond his average draft position.

Nolan Arenado's rookie campaign wasn't too exciting. The former second-round pick finished with a .267 batting average and 10 homers, barely cracking the top 25 on the Player Rater among third basemen. Let's remember, though, that he received just 66 at-bats at Triple-A before being called up, so it's not surprising that last season served as an adjustment period. All told, Arenado batted .298 after the All-Star break last season, displayed a strong 85 percent contact rate and has developing power that should be aided by Coors Field, all positive signs for 2014. The 22-year-old might never be elite, but he still has a bright future.

Where's the Basement?

From a skills and production standpoint, Aramis Ramirez is as consistent as they come and has shown little sign of slowing down. Dating back to 2004, A-Ram has never hit fewer than 25 homers in seasons in which he has received 450 or more at-bats and has batted worse than .289 only once. Of course, the problem is that injuries frequently keep him off the field. He has missed 38 or more games three times in the past five seasons, and, in 2013, he managed just 92 games due to knee issues. When he's on the field, Ramirez's skills remain intact, so he could easily be a top-five third baseman this season if he stays healthy. That said, he turns 36 in June, and the skills are going to fall off at some point, whether due to age or injury. Keep the risk in mind when preparing to say his name on draft day.

Chase Headley failed to duplicate his breakout 2012 season, in which he batted .286 with 31 bombs, 115 RBIs and 17 steals. Some of last season's struggles (.250/13/50 in 520 at-bats) can be blamed on injury, as he battled thumb, calf and back ailments. it's hard to ignore, however, that his numbers were much closer to his 2009-11 production than his 2012 breakout. A rebound is possible; he's only 29, after all. But be careful not to bid with the expectation that he'll return to his 2012 levels. At this point, the evidence suggests that last season is closer to his expected baseline.

Like Headley, David Freese failed to build upon his career-best 2012 performance (.293/.372/.467), stumbling to a .262/.340/.381 slash line last season. Unfortunately, some indicators suggest 2013 is closer to what fantasy owners should expect going forward. Freese clubbed 20 homers in 2012, but his 55.2 percent ground ball rate, the seventh highest in the majors last season, makes a return to that plateau unlikely. (As a quick aside, every player with a higher GB rate had double-digit steals; Freese, meanwhile, has six career steals.) The former World Series MVP was dealt to the Angels this offseason, so maybe a change of scenery will help. Even then, he's little more than a middling fantasy option.

Steady As He Goes

Ryan Zimmerman is not exciting. He's not a guy who's going to go off and produce a top-five fantasy season and lead your fantasy team to a championship. He's also unlikely to crumble and fall outside the top 10 at third base. Consistency like that isn't always sexy, but it's plenty valuable. Over the past two seasons, the Nationals third baseman has averaged a .279 batting average, 26 home runs, 87 RBIs and 89 runs, all numbers that would've ranked top six among third basemen in 2013. Not surprisingly, this season's projection -- .276/26/85/86 -- looks awfully similar. Draft Zimmerman, lock in the numbers and move on.

Kyle Seager doesn't possess any one skill that particularly stands out, but he has settled in as a fine mid-tier third baseman who does a bit of everything. He has 20-homer pop and double-digit steal potential, and a rising walk rate (6.5 percent in 2011, 7.1 percent in 2012, 9.8 percent in 2013) suggests he's still improving at the plate, which is a good sign for the future. Plus, while Safeco Field tends to hinder power hitters, Seager's fly ball rate has been trending up the past couple seasons, and last season's 45.5 percent rate was actually the seventh-highest rate in the majors and tops among third basemen. Perhaps there's still some untapped power here.

If you draft Alvarez, he's going to hurt your batting average. We know that because we have proof in the form of 1,665 at-bats and a career .235 batting average. However, we also know what we'll get from Alvarez in the home run department: a lot of 'em. Alvarez's 66 home runs over the past two seasons are second behind only Cabrera among third basemen, and his .240 ISO last season ranked seventh in baseball. At 26 years old, Alvarez still could improve and become more disciplined at the plate. For now, take the good with the bad and enjoy the elite power production.

Talkin' Prospects

Nick Castellanos, the Tigers' top prospect, will open the season as the team's starting third baseman after hitting .276/.343/.450 with 18 home runs at Triple-A last season as the youngest player in the International League. He has good power, along with a refined approach at the plate, and even though he might not produce big numbers right away, he could be fantasy relevant in his first full season.

[+] EnlargeMatt Davidson
Doug Padilla/ESPNChicago.comMatt Davidson has a shot to earn the White Sox's starting third base job after being traded from the Diamondbacks this offseason.

Matt Davidson became the White Sox's top hitting prospect after they acquired him from Arizona this offseason, and he'll immediately take over at the hot corner. He could be a batting-average liability, but he has solid power that should play right away, especially in hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field. His value is probably limited to deeper leagues and AL-only formats for now.

None of them are likely to open the season on their respective big league rosters, but Maikel Franco, Miguel Sano and Kris Bryant are all names to keep tabs on this season. Franco hit .320 with 31 dingers and 103 RBIs between high Class-A and Double-A last season, and the Phillies could look his way should Cody Asche underwhelm. Ranked as the No. 8 prospect overall by our own Keith Law, Sano possesses tremendous power -- he predicted he'd hit 45 home runs this season -- and could force the Twins' hand in the second half if he crushes in the minors. Bryant, the Cubs' second overall pick last year, might not make his big league debut until September (or possibly 2015), but he has great long-term upside thanks to his big-time power potential. Keeper and dynasty owners should take note.

Start 'Em Elsewhere?

Matt Carpenter is best used at second base, though he's expected to serve as the Cardinals' full-time third baseman this season, so it's possible he'll lose second base eligibility after this season. ... Martin Prado is eligible at three positions -- second base, third base and the outfield -- though he's most valuable at second base, at which he ranks as a top-10 option in our preseason rankings. ... Castellanos will be only outfield eligible to start the season, but he'll gain third base eligibility in April as the Tigers' likely starting third baseman. His value lies in deeper mixed leagues and AL-only formats, though where you play him can be determined by the makeup of your roster. ... As Boston's starting shortstop, Bogaerts will gain eligibility there within the first few weeks. You're probably better off using him at short over third base, but it's not a necessity. ... Jose Iglesias (shortstop) and Juan Francisco (first base) both carry dual eligibility as well. Their fantasy values are limited to single-league formats, though.

Points vs. Roto

In points-based leagues, statistics like OBP, OPS and total bases carry more weight than, say, batting average. Longoria, Seager and Headley all batted less than .270 last season, but they all ranked in the top five among third basemen in walks, so they have more value in point leagues. Also consider that a guy like Machado was hindered in roto leagues last season because he clubbed only 14 homers, which ranked outside the top 10 at the position. However, he finished top five in total bases thanks to his 68 extra-base hits, so he got a value boost in point-based formats. The same can be said for Prado, who also ranked outside the top 10 in homers but finished ninth in total bases.

As far as roto leagues are concerned, stolen bases is the main area in which players can differentiate themselves. However, as we've discussed, most third basemen don't have much to offer in terms of speed. Still, Wright's value gets a significant boost thanks to his 20-steal potential, and guys like Headley, Seager and Brett Lawrie, who have stolen double-digit bases in the past, receive a slight uptick as well.

Bottom Line

Third base isn't stacked by any means, but there's still a lot to like here, especially if you're in search of power. Only one third-sacker stole at least 10 bases last season, and only a few have the potential to flirt with double digits in 2014, so versatility is not this position's strong point. Due to some premier players losing eligibility, third base isn't as deep as last season, so you'll have to act quickly if you want to acquire one of the elite options on draft day. The closer you get to the end of the top 10, the more risk you should be ready to take on.

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